Final Reflection Essay

Ben Timmons 

After reading Lucille Clifton’s poem, “surely i am able to write poems”, I am left with an interesting interpretation of her words. I believe Clifton is opening up to her readers and admitting the struggle that African American authors may face when it comes to writing only about trivial matters such as nature and what seems beautiful to them. This struggle is paired with the desire and urge to write about the reality and truth of living in the world as an African American human. Writing about the history of injustice and cultural suppression that has troubled African Americans in America is the “other poem” that Clifton feels is more important to write over poetry about natural beauty.

surely i am able to write poems 

celebrating grass and how the blue

in the sky can flow green or red

and the waters lean against the

chesapeake shore like a familiar

poems about nature and landscape

surely but whenever I begin

“the trees wave their knotted branches 

and…” why

is there under that poem always

an other poem?   

Lucille Clifton

The message in Clifton’s words has become quite apparent for me in much of the literature that we have read in English 337: African American Literature. The relevancy of Clifton’s poem can be found in Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”, and Percival Everett’s novel titled “The Trees”. Frederick Douglass details his experience of being enslaved while also bringing awareness to the history of slavery and inequality in America. Alice Walker creates a story that portrays the hesitancy of some African American folk in America to move on from their cultural roots and adapt into a new world of opportunity and transparency. Percival Everett depicts the ongoing issues of racial violence and injustice that have been rooted in some parts of America for over a hundred years. For these African American authors, these topics are the “other poems” that are desired to be written, like Clifton mentions in her poem.

In Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, the horrors of slavery and inequality are made aware. Douglass details his upbringing as someone who was enslaved at a very young age and never knew his age nor celebrated his birthday. He writes, “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it” … “I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday” … “The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege” (Douglass 276). Beside the fact that Douglass was enslaved against his will, he was deprived of the simple pleasure of knowing his age and celebrating his birthday. This inequality and terror faced by Douglass must be told, for this matter is more important than literature about the trees and sky. Douglass continues to speak on the horrors that he witnessed while enslaved, “I have oft been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose” (Douglass 277). This harsh reality outlined by Douglass is crucial for others in America to hear, it creates a sense of belonging for those who may have previously been enslaved or those who may have faced the inequality and injustice forced upon African American people. I think this is what Clifton feels in her poem, the desire and urge to bring these experiences as African African individuals to light.

In the short story titled “Everyday Use”, Alice Walker achieves something similar to that of Douglass. Walker details a story about a Mother and her two daughters who struggle with leaving some of their deeply rooted traditions behind and finding a new identity in the world. In doing this, she brings attention to a dilemma that other African Americans may also face. One daughter, Maggie, lives with her Mother, who is hesitant to let go of tradition, and sticks to the status quo of her culture alongside her Mother. The other daughter, Wangero, is a college educated and religiously inspired woman who tries to shift her mother and sister’s lifestyles by encouraging them to change their ways and make something of themselves as African American women. Wangero tells her sister, “You ought to try to make something of yourself too, Maggie. It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it” (Walker 1725). Walker brings awareness to the idea that African American culture and tradition has been both suppressed and made inferior by others in America. Now that the world is beginning to change with more opportunities and attention for African American people, there is an identity and lifestyle crisis that ensues, as some do not want to lose their traditions and deeply rooted culture. While Alice Walker is more than capable of writing a short story about superfluous concerns, she, just like Lucille Clifton, feels there are more important topics to bring attention to as an African American woman and author. This short story about African American struggle and concern creates a sense of community for those who may be dealing with something similar.

In addition to Frederick Douglass’ narrative and Alice Walker’s short story, I see a relationship between Clifton’s message in her poem and Percival Everett’s novel, “The Trees”. Everett’s confronting novel about revenge and the dark history of Money, Mississippi is not solely a mysterious crime tale which details lynching and murder. Rather, Everett does more with his novel and brings attention to the racial violence and inequality that is still prevalent in the world. Everett delivers his message by incorporating a couple concepts that our class has been using for direction throughout this semester. First, Everett incorporates the idea of straddling in his novel by straddling the boundary of morality. In an interview with The Guardian’s Anthony Cummins, Everett is asked the following question, “What led you to write a novel about lynching?” Everett admits, “While I very seldom say what any of my novels mean, one thing I think is true is that there’s a distinction to be made between morality and justice: justice might not always feel moral to us, and that’s a scary thought” (Everett). Everett certainly straddles on the line of morality by using black on white murder to represent justice and equity. This is a bit scary, like Everett says, however, in a town where the law is all but fair, using scenarios like this is sometimes necessary to bring awareness to a crucial problem like racism and inequality.

Everett uses the concept of straddling in another way as well. Everett shows what it’s like to straddle between two Americas: one white and the other black. The difference in these two worlds is the acceptance and inclusion of African American lives. Money, Mississippi is certainly an America where acceptance and inclusion of African American lives is lacking. This is evident in Everett’s character named Gertrude. Gertrude works at a diner in Money where she uses the alias of Dixie to get better tips and create the appearance of  “more white”. We find out later in the novel that Gertrude is actually a black woman. 

“Excuse me for asking, but are you Black?”

“Why yes”

“I knew it, I didn’t know that you’re Black. I didn’t know that, but I knew there was something. Does Whitey know?

“They know. They forget” (Everett 69).

If Gertrude lived in a town where there were not two separate worlds, there is a good chance she would not have to use a “white” name while she worked and would not be asked about her race when someone suspected her to be black. Everett depicts what it likes to straddle between two worlds and essentially live two different lives. This is a result of the lack of acceptance and inclusion that many African American people face in real life.

The next concept that Everett includes in an attempt to bring awareness to deep and meaningful issues is transparency, a topic that has resurfaced in much of the literature we’ve read for this class. Everett is not shy with his transparency of the history of racial violence in America, specifically with the infamous lynching of Emmett Till which took place in Money in 1955. In the same interview between Cummins and Everett, Everett is asked about his inspiration and influence for the story. He answers, “A lot of experimental novelists experiment for the sake of experimentation, but if it doesn’t add meaning, I have no interest in it; the only reason I come to this art form is because I’m interested in playing with how meaning gets constructed” (Everett). Everett experiments with this novel but makes sure to be transparent in his writing about racial violence and inequality in America. The infamous lynching of Emmett Till is brought up multiple times by Everett, especially through one of his characters, Granny C, who was responsible for wrongly accusing Emmett Till of offending her which led to his murder. 

“What was you thinking on, Granny C?”

Granny C stared off again. “About something I wished I hadn’t done. About the lie I told all them years back on that n***** boy.”

“Oh Lawd,” Charlene said. “We on that again.”

“I wronged that little pickaninny. Like it say in the good book, what goes around comes around” (Everett 9).

The power of literature such as Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”, and Pericval Everett’s “The Trees” can be seen in the portrayal of  important matters like racial injustice, African American culture, and the history of slavery in America. Writing about these concerns instead of trivial matters such as natural beauty in the world is what Lucille Clifton pushes in her poem “surely i am able to write poems”.

Say My Name

Sidney Smith’s 1820 short reading Who Reads an American Book introduces us to a new perspective on people’s interpretations of America’s first. According to Sidney Smith, a British writer, America has not introduced anything worth honoring or naming; instead, they are doing quite the opposite: taking the identity of others. Smith writes, “The Americans are a brave, industrious, and acute people; but they have hitherto given no indications of genius, and made no approaches to the heroic, either in their morality or character. They are but a recent offset indeed from England; and should make it their chief boast, for many generations to come, that they are sprung from the same race with Bacon and Shakespeare and Newton” (Smith). Although America was still a freshly established country when this written work was released in 1820, its ties to England were still strong. Smith admits this by assuring readers that people like Shakespeare have a significant influence in this country. However, is Smith wrong? Shakespeare’s work is regarded as the father of literature in America when we look at the famous literary canon. Shakespeare’s works are mentioned frequently in the K-12 curriculum. Even in colleges, there are classes dedicated solely to Shakespeare’s works. 

Smith’s words are regarded as factual because they include the names of well-known British authors. He asks, “Where are their Foxes, their Burkes, their Sheridans, their Windhams, their Horners, their Wilberforces?—where their Arkwrights, their Watts, their Davys?—their Robertsons, Blairs, Smiths, Stewarts, Paleys and Malthuses?—their Porsons, Parts, Burneys, or Blomfields?—their Scotts, Campbells, Byrons, Moores, or Crabbes?—their Siddonses, Kembles, Keans, or ONeils—their Wilkies, Laurences, Chantrys?” (Smith). Smith’s words reveal what I believe is part of the ugly truth in the United States; what are those names we choose to use concerning our history and discoveries. The concept of stolen identity is spread throughout Smith’s writing; we celebrate the work of Shakespeare but not of Maya Angelou; we celebrate George Washington as a hero but consider Malcolm X a criminal. But Smith’s questions in the year 2022 still stand, who are the people that make America honest and noble?  

As a Black woman who has seen and experienced racism, discrimination, and sexism and is a first-generation American, I am solely witnessing America’s hatred towards people of color. Sidney Smith writes, “Finally, under which of the old tyrannical governments of Europe is every sixth man a slave, whom his fellow creatures may buy and sell and torture?” (Smith). Sidney Smith’s work is essential in understanding who he considered important within his knowledge of honoring writers. When mentioning names such as Campbell, Paleys, Wilkies, etc., he says the names and honors those who have left their mark. When ridiculing the United States, his discussion upon enslavement is essential in grasping what I believe should be the United States’s need to say people of color’s names.  Enslavement occurred in this nation because of the need for control and power; people of color experienced enslavement in ways that can not be put into words. After enslavement was “abolished,” a new form of terror was constructed known as lynching. Lynchings were violent public acts done by white people in the 19th and 20th centuries, primarily in the South, to intimidate and subjugate Black people. Lynchings are often associated with images of Black men and women being hung from trees, including torture, mutilation, mutilation, and humiliation. Some of the victims were set on fire. Strange Fruit, written by Abel Meeropel and performed by Billie Holiday, depicts lynching as “Southern trees bear a strange fruit blood on the leaves and blood at the root Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” (Meeropel, Holiday). This piece is a haunting protest against racism’s inhumanity. Those strange fruits hanging from those trees were the lives of Black folks who were often wrongly accused by white people. 

Saying the names of the Black lives that have been taken from their families was an element of Percival Everett’s resistance and honor in his novel The Trees. The reality of the murder of Emmett Till is infused within this text is what captivated my attention. For instance, most of the main characters were of color, and through their reactions to the day-to-day events found in the novel, it became clear to me why saying people’s names is revolutionary. Everett writes “Granny C stared off again, “About something I wished I hadn’t done. About the lie, I told all them years back on that n***** boy” (9). Readers are unaware of the issue Granny C was alluding to when they read this scene. The phrase used to characterize the individual is discriminatory and demeaning, while also othering the individual. However, this particular section exemplifies a comparable aspect of Smith’s criticism of the United States. As he previously stated, this is a country where Black people were regarded as objects and exclusively property. Names are the weapon for visibility, recognition, and respect, it is only after the novel’s narrative twist that I was able to realize the novel’s significance. Everett writes, “Long time ago. It was their daddies who killed Emmett Till back in the fifties” (78). Emmett Till’s name has enormous significance because it reflects the harsh truth of the United States and its ongoing ramifications. Emmett Till was only 14 years old when he was murdered in the state of Mississippi by two white men. Many Black Americans were inspired to join the Civil Rights Movement after his death. Percival Everett was able to respect Emmett Till through his choice of words by not hiding his identity or the events that occurred to him. Saying his name was a noble act of resistance.

Saying someone’s name is highly significant, especially in the Black community. During enslavement, enslavers would modify and give enslaved people new names to which they had to respond to. Enslaved people were frequently marked with an enslaver’s last name to signify who they were forced to labor for. I was struck by Everett’s work because of the respect he paid to the victims of lynching. His work prompted me to see the default America has when it comes to honoring their successes and how the inventors are people of color who rarely receive credit for their work. For instance, Daniel Hale Williams was an African American surgeon and was the first surgeon to perform successful open-heart surgery. African American nurse Mary Van Brittan Brown, created a home security system in which the makeup is similar to those being used today. These are just a few examples of the way people of color have contributed so much to our society but are usually not recognized. By naming people like Dale Hale Williams and Mary Van Britan Brown, I am honoring those who came before me as well as those who are distinctive and deserving of recognition.

Love is Solid Stone: The Broken Earth Trilogy and Forgiveness as Love

By: Maria Pawlak for ENGL 468

Back in February of 2022, I reread the first novel in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, The Fifth Season, after having last read it in March of 2020. The space between initial reading and second reading allowed for personal growth, shift in thought, and shift in culture. The first time I read The Fifth Season, I was a freshman in college who had never heard of COVID-19; the second time, I was a senior who had more than heard of the virus—I had had it myself. Reflection is not just an exercise in self-understanding. As these two rereads demonstrated to me, it is a chance to grow and understand the world around you externally as well as internally. In that vein, the chance to now reflect and reassess the essay I wrote after rereading The Fifth Season last February will demonstrate a great deal of change, especially considering that in the intervening months, I finished the Broken Earth Trilogy in full for the first time. As with anything, seeing the whole picture and not just the first third informs one’s reading, which will be obvious as this blog post continues. Because of that shift in focus, what I once wrote an entire essay about becomes less nuanced and more one-note than I had wanted originally, and I am forced to reexamine the way Jemisin threads power, love, and justice together in a cohesive way. Now, it is clearer to see how love factors into the twin threads of power and justice throughout the trilogy as a whole. 

My first essay focused on the challenging way Jemisin used the fantasy-geological concept of “icing” in order to explore themes of justice and power. In The Fifth Season’s world, people with significant power over the earth, called orogenes, have the ability to “ice” individuals, plants, et cetera, through an explosion of energy and power. This “icing” is fatal. In my first reading, I was fascinated—and simultaneously disconcerted—by the way lack of justice forces orogenes into killing without distinction or mercy through icing, especially when compared to the more subtle displays of power of politics as displayed by the Fulcrum, which controls the orogene population. After all, the reader has no more than barely met our main character, Essun, a recently bereaved mother and secret orogene, when she ices her town and threatens both those who had tried to help her and those who tried to hurt her. Jemisin does not let the reader rush past this difficult, complex emotional journey of violence, instead describing it with visceral language like, “The shout dies in his throat as he falls, flash-frozen, the last of his warm breath hissing out through clenched teeth and frosting the round as you steal the heat from it.” It is violent, nuanced, and hard-hitting all at once. Jemisin’s purposeful second-person also plays with blame here, especially in first readings before individuals know the full story. By narrating in second-person, Jemisin forces the reader to participate in the assault, to engage in the violence. With every turn of a page, she calls out “you” again and again, making the actions of her protagonist as close to the reader as possible. In that way, icing especially becomes a study in the way that the lack of justice can manifest in outbursts of non-discriminating, wide-spread violence; revenge and fury that touches everyone in a certain radius, rather than those at fault. And because it is in the second-person, it also calls out the fact that those who stand by and allow injustice, violence, and hurt to go unchecked are as guilty and participatory in injustice as the people at the forefront. 

However, as I previously mentioned, it is not until one finishes the trilogy in its entirety that the true nuance of the second-person narration of indiscriminate violence comes to full light. In my first reading, this particular instance of “icing” is a demonstration of when injustice and usurpations of power go unchecked for so long, that what power the oppressed do have explodes in angry, wide-reaching ways. However, the second-person narration of that explosion of power adds a new, love-laced wrinkle. At first, the reader is only vaguely aware of who is narrating—all we know is that a third party narrates, someone who thinks the end of the world is boring and wants to “move on to more interesting things.” We are given a prologue of introduction from this mysterious individual, and then promptly asked to move on and become engrossed in the quick-paced world building of N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy. By the end of the trilogy, though, that narrator is revealed to be Hoa, a practically immortal companion of Essun. Hoa characterizes their relationship as not simply friends or family, but rather “‘…both and more. We are beyond such things.’” Suddenly, the previous thousand-plus pages take on striking new meaning. 

Now that we are well-aware that the narrator is not some far-off third-party or someone who wishes ill-will to Essun, but in fact someone dear to her, the moments of nuanced violence in the previous books come with new interpretations. Add to that the fact that the novels become Hoa retelling the entire story of Essun’s life to her after she has lost her memories, and that wrinkle becomes a full-blown tear in the fabric. Someone might have an instinct to say that Hoa’s unencumbered retelling is blunt and hurtful, but I posit the opposite. This is where N.K. Jemisin’s emphasis on love and care enters the power and justice equation. Instead of treating Essun like a child, brushing over the terrible facts of someone’s life, Hoa instead tells Essun of her past violence in poetic yet brutal language. He does not sugarcoat and he does not pretend. And even so, the whole reason he even tells Essun about her past “icing” is because he misses her, he cares about her, and wants to give her the honor of knowing the story of her past life. 

In taking the time to painstakingly recount her story to her, Hoa is engaging in an act of love. Through doing so, Jemisin makes two things happen. First, she demonstrates the power of love. Hoa is a being who has existed for centuries, who has made mistakes, and who cares about Essun deeply, going so far as to take the time to recount her life story. Secondly, the fact that he includes instances of injustice and violence in reaction to that injustice demonstrates humanity’s capacity to forgive and to love in a beautiful way. Yes, Essun has made terrible mistakes. She has committed acts of indiscriminate violence to those in her life who both loved her and hurt her. This is almost always because of injustice enacted upon her first, but that does not negate the violence she causes. And yet—Hoa loves her. He cares for her. His dedication to Essun even after violence and mistakes is Jemisin’s thesis on the power of love in the face of injustice and harm. 

Having read the entire trilogy, the reflection necessary to understand Hoa’s true loyalty throughout the entire trilogy is daunting. At first, one is simply taken by the plot-twist. But in careful rumination, the distinct significance N.K. Jemisin gives to forgiveness and love by having Hoa narrate the trilogy becomes unmistakable. He does not falter from Essun’s side, even as he recounts horrific instances of power or abuse. He knows that much of it was a reaction to a world that treated Essun and those like her with incredible cruelty—the lack of black-and-white throughout the trilogy only strengthens the power of love. When you are left without certainty or justice, what remains? Through Hoa, I believe that Jemisin is proposing an answer: love. Love remains, through loyalty, understanding, and forgiveness. 

Essun’s introductory “icing” challenges the reader to care for and relate to the injustice of her world despite her reaction to that injustice being indiscriminate killing. That is true. But it is also true that once you have finished the entire trilogy, the revealed depth of the narration adds love and loyalty to the mix. The fact that Hoa remains at Essun’s side after death, violence, disagreement, and the end of the entire world is proof enough of love. Forgiveness abounds; second-chances are offered. By the end of the novel, Essun is no longer who she once was. She becomes a stone-eater, like Hoa. This is a result of the power she used—clearly, there are still consequences for one’s actions amid the second chances. But that does not countermand the second chance itself. Icing might have introduced both Essun and her power in a violent, deadly manner. But it is the manner in which that violence was narrated, the steadfastness of Hoa’s recounting, that proves the faithful power of love throughout N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy. Yes, there was rampant injustice and indiscriminate use of power. But Hoa’s love, the loyalty and forgiveness he extended, is indisputable. 

Weakness, Instability, and Love: Catastrophism in Stable Socieites

The theory of Catastrophism, as defined by Nur and Burgess, is the “sudden, typically unpredicted natural disaster that leads to abrupt changes in a culture or lifestyle that has been stable for a long time”. I explored this geological and social phenomenon heavily in my ThinkING essay, published in late February, in relation to The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. However, after completing Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, I have since reflected on the idea of change. I have come to the conclusion that change, no matter how abrupt or disagreeable, is not always a bad thing. With that being said, I do not believe that Catastrophism, which can cause substantial distress and destruction of societal stability, always results in a negative transformation of the lives of all people in a community.

 In my original essay, I stated that “catastrophism definitely plays a role in the destruction of societal stability, but only because there was a factor before the natural disaster that was already causing weakness and vulnerability to collapse”. After reading not only what I wrote, but also Jemisin’s trilogy in its entirety, the idea of weakness is something that I have pondered over. An idea that has fascinated me is whether a LACK of power and justice- two very big themes within The Broken Earth trilogy- are the cause of weakness within societies. This changes my original hypothesis, as weakness is not instability. A society can be weak and have internal weaknesses but be incredibly stable. Originally I equated weakness and instability, using them interchangeably as synonyms. Jemisin’s work has taught me that these two words, and social constructs, are not the same at all. Within the third and last book in the trilogy, The Stone Sky, Jemisin introduces the reader to the idea of civilization before The Stillness, which is the ‘current’ world that the trilogy is set in. When describing the city, she describes a place that sounds almost mythical, “And Syl Anagist lives… in bustling streets and ceaseless commerce and buildings that your mind would struggle to define as such… vehicles…No steam or chemical fuels them…” (Jemisin). Jemisin wrote this city to model a SolarPunk aesthetic, which can be considered beautiful, green and highly technologically advanced. In other words, this city comes across as extremely stable. However, I have established that stability does not mean strength. Within this society, we are also introduced to a group of people, the Tuners, being oppressed and used as slaves, “We are the deficient ones, after all, stripped of much that would’ve made us human” (Jemisin). The Tuners were used for their abilities while being stripped of their humanity. This is where the internal weakness of this seemingly powerful society, Syl Anagist, lies. In order to keep their society running and uphold their impressive infrastructure, Syl Anagist took advantage of and persecuted the Tuners. These people were used as a resource, and without them the community would fall apart at the seams. Moving forward in time, society was also weak when the Fulcrum was a highly functioning body. The trilogy’s main character, Essun, experienced life at the Fulcrum and worked for the Fulcrum from childhood to young adulthood. Society at this point in time was incredibly stable, as guardians and the leadership caste were able to control Orogenes- those with incredible powers- and use them to their benefit. They were, like the Tuners, slaves. The oppression of the Tuners at the time of Syl Anagist and the oppression of Orogenes during the Fulcrum’s existence are extremely reflective of one another. Society was weak during both of these time periods, as the people in power were not the most powerful people, and the most powerful people were being taken advantage of. I assert, then, that oppression makes a society WEAK, but not necessarily unstable. 

Returning once again to my ThinkING essay, I posed the questions: Does a LACK of justice lead to an increase in Catastrophism, and how does it do so? Although I would still respond to this question with an immediate “YES”, the “how” portion of the question has evolved and shifted, shaped by new knowledge I gained through reading The Broken Earth trilogy. I no longer would argue that “Fifth Seasons”, periods of dramatized apocalypse, cause Catastrophism. Society changes during these periods due to the increased difficulty to survive, and therefore an increase in the survival instincts of the people within. However, social norms are upheld. During these phases, Orogenes are still oppressed and looked at differently. They are feared due to their immense power, but also utilized for their abilities to stop or lessen the effects of natural disasters. This fact does not change in The Stillness, no matter if a “Fifth Season” is occurring or not. By definition, because society’s views as a whole do not change, and there is no philosophical revolution, “Fifth Seasons” cannot be considered Catastrophism. What does cause Catastrophism however, in The Stillness and Syl Anagist alike, is a lack of justice. When people who lack justice want to gain justice, this is the sole cause of Catastrophism, or the “how” component of the original question I posed. During the “Fifth Seasons”, that spark is not present. People are simply attempting to survive, and are not focused on changing the way they are treated. We are made to believe that, until Essun, no Orogene has been able to change society and cause Catastrophism. They simply accept their oppression due to the need for survival, or are not powerful enough to bring about change, “They’re afraid because we exist, she says. There’s nothing we did to provoke their fear, other than exist. There’s nothing we can do to earn their approval, except stop existing – so we can either die like they want, or laugh at their cowardice and go on with our lives” (Jemisin). We see, especially in The Stone Sky, how a lack of justice increases Catastrophism when people are powerful enough to cause it. It may even be argued that, in the fictional world created by Jemisin, Catastrophism was the only feasible way that power could be used to gain justice, as she states, “But for a society built on exploitation, there is no greater threat than having no one left to oppress” (Jemisin). 

As Jemisin has proved to readers, Catastrophism does not always result in ruin- whether that be physical or societal. This complicated geological phenomenon can be the sole cause of a group of oppressed people gaining justice, which most (unless you are on the side of the oppressor) consider to be an incredibly positive change. Catastrophism, which I believe can be considered a movement, needs a catalyst. Within Jemisin’s books, the catalyst she, and her characters, choose to explore quite often is LOVE. Love makes everything more complicated but yet is often the reason people choose to fight back. Essun endured many hardships throughout The Broken Earth trilogy, including losing her children. Her motivator for the Catastrophism that she caused was the LOVE for her children, and all other Orogene children in The Stillness. Jemisin makes it clear that this is Essun’s ‘why’, “For how many centuries has the world killed rogga children so that everyone else’s children can sleep easy?” (Jemisin). Essun is fighting not for herself, but for the greater good of her people and because of the love she has for them. Therefore, love can start a revolution. 

People who have power can always change the world, whether for the right reasons or the wrong reasons. In this case, Jemisin proves to readers that justice can be gained through Catastrophism, and all it takes is one person. Because of this trilogy, and Jemisin’s beautifully crafted writing, my definitions of power and justice have changed drastically. Power is a spectrum, as opposed to a negative attribute. Within the books, there were many people who held power that can be considered the ‘villains’ within this world, but there were also many people who were extremely powerful that can be considered the protagonists. All people in this trilogy had power in some shape or form. One group of people had power that was upheld due to societal beliefs, while other people had power due to physical abilities. This power, no matter the source, can be used to bring about change, whether positive or negative. Because my definitions have changed, I have begun to look at American society very differently. One could argue that American society is stable based on a variety of factors (the economy, education, job opportunities, etc.). But, in my opinion, society is incredibly weak. Very recently, we have learned that the Supreme Court wishes to overturn an important decision, Roe v. Wade. This, in turn, takes rights away from people who need reproductive care. Therefore, there is a group of people who are lacking justice. By my definition, this makes our country extremely weak, and consequently vulnerable to change. This change, although unlikely on this big of a scale, could be brought about by Catastrophism. Here, we see the spectrum of power, as citizens are using their power (in numbers) to influence people in powerful positions (the Supreme Court). Even in this very real situation, LOVE can be considered a motivator. People who are fighting for these rights are both fighting for themselves and fighting for others that they care about. Thus, love (along with many, many other factors) is a catalyst even in our world. As Jemisin states, “…demand the impossible. It isn’t right, they whisper, weep, shout; what has been done to them is not right. They are not inferior. They do not deserve it. And so it is the society that must change. There can be peace this way, too, but not before conflict. No one reaches this place without a false start or two” (Jemisin). 

My Semester Story

Oh, no. No, no, no. There’s too much to learn from examining that tension between the power and the impact of the art and realizing where that art comes from and what the impetus behind that art is. The best way to engage with twisted or otherwise problematic art, in my opinion, is to first off acknowledge that that art has an impact, hurts people, and understand that engaging with it could perpetuate some of the harm that that art is capable of doing, but flag it, warn it, put it off to the side where people can engage with it at their leisure, at their choice or at a point where they’re strong enough or capable of doing so, but then engage with it. There’s a line between respecting the work and honoring the person. You can respect the craft. You don’t have to put that person on a pedestal. Artists are human beings and that means you need to examine them in all their facets. You have to recognize that these are people and that the things that make them sometimes horrible people are sometimes the things that make them good writers or good artists and that’s what you want to engage with.–N.K. Jemisin  (Links to an external site.) “N.K. Jemisin on H.P. Lovecraft”

Epigraphs can be defined as inscriptions carved usually into buildings, statues, or coins (Oxford English Dictionary). However, the definition goes far beyond that of an engravement. When applied to literary disciplines, an epigraph is a paragraph or line of text that serves to preface a larger text. Usually found at the beginning of a book, chapter, piece of poetry, or otherwise, an epigraph provides the audience with a suggestion with which to underscore their reading. Though its meaning may not seem clear initially, an epigraph will gain relevance as a reader moves through the text. For the shape of our course, the epigraphs were provided at the beginning of the class, with the purpose of guiding our learning as we moved through the different texts and conversations. For this assignment, students in this class could choose to focus on an individual epigraph from a handful of options. The course epigraphs, which can be considered at times as a singular unit and at other times as individual blurbs of text, serve to inform us as readers through challenging yet necessary topics of discussion. A question that arises in the consideration of epigraphs is why they are placed at the beginning of a piece rather than at the end. An epigraph could be compared to the way an appetizer relates to the main entree, a taste of what’s to come. This question, however, would suggest that they could just as easily be dessert. I argue that an epigraph is only as strong as the reader to whom it is offered. Its purpose is to spark reflection on the text overall, to keep the reader engaged and thinking while reading, and to bring the reader back after finishing. 

N.K. Jemisin, revered author of “The Broken Earth” trilogy as well as several other books, spoke on H.P. Lovecraft, a problematic author whose contributions to the horror genre have iconized him despite his troubling values in regard to race. Jemisin’s thoughts on the topic can be simplified as the famous phrase “separate the art from the artist.” She describes the distinction between absorbing the art and celebrating where it came from. In Jemisin’s description of the relationship between Lovecraft as a morally corrupt human being and his work, Lovecraft himself almost becomes an epigraph to his own writings. Jemisin suggests that readers use their understanding of Lovecraft as a person to inform their interpretation of his work, and to apply this elsewhere when dealing with problematic artists. Art is innately multilayered and complicated, it is in its nature to handle the seemingly contradictory fashion of simultaneous beauty and pain. It is the goal of art to move people, and movement is not purely positive. As Jemisin says, “…that art has an impact, [it] hurts people…” to acknowledge the power of the material people produce. A point she makes is to engage with the work despite the harm it does. She advises to flag it for its potential to cause damage, but look it in the face in order to dissect why it has the ability to cause that damage. Through thorough examination of the effect of art such as Lovecraft’s, work can be done to prevent future harmful or offensive works of art.

There are several ways that Jemisin’s stance can inform our reading of Percival Everett’s The Trees, mainly in considering the characters Gertrude and Mama Z’s actions. The plot of the novel brings forward an interesting suggestion: can murder be justified? And, if so, in what circumstance does that become the case? Gertrude and Mama Z inspire a string of murders as acts of revenge against the descendents of extreme racists, who often inherited their ancestors bigoted values. The nature of the killing mimics the brutal mutilation of Emmett Till, as well as starting with those both directly and indirectly involved with Till’s lynching. Grappling with the existence of art that causes pain, as Jemisin discusses with Lovecraft’s work, mirrors the struggle that readers partake in after finishing The Trees. I use the word mirrors intentionally here, as the two situations are inverses of each other; the tension of when the “art” and the “artist” do not seem to properly reflect each other. If impactful art can be created by a problematic person, then can vicious crimes be committed by good-hearted people? In other words, do our actions and the product of our actions define us, or do our moral alignments perhaps define them? This is the conflict that readers are left with, how can characters we grew to love and cherish be responsible for the horrible misdeeds that serve as the focus of the novel? Is it excusable given their circumstances, as victims of centuries worth of oppression? Or given the connection both the reader and other characters within the book have built and relied on? And again, is murder excusable at all?

It seems a reasonable assumption that officiants of the law should be a reliable compass with which to orient our moral standing. However, Everett reminds his readers that officers and investigators are simply people, just the same as any of us. It is arguably in our human nature to hold biases, and Everett makes a point to show that those that we depend on to uphold the law are no exception to that rule. Firstly, he establishes it in the overt racism of the white officers in Money, Mississippi. At several points within the novel, white officers discuss Jim and Ed in blatantly racist ways. Everett then includes in the novel a scene in which Jim, Ed, and Hind get pulled over, with no connection to plot development and purely for the sake of exemplifying the daily struggles that Black people face. The officer pulls their car over for going “two miles over the speed limit. Now that could be very dangerous,” (Everett 134). To prevent there being any confusion as to the nature of the situation, Everett has the cop say “Okay, y’all some funny darkies. Well, out of the car,” (Everett 134). It is only when the three investigators reveal their badges to the officer that he lets them go, but not before calling them “Stupid sumbitches,” (Everett 135). Once that end of the spectrum of possible biases is established, Everett goes on to reveal the other. In interviewing in order to further the investigation, Ed tells the wife of a victim that “Between you and me, I don’t even care who killed him. I just want to figure this mess out. It’s sort of my job,” (Everett 180). Ed’s surprising moral alignment lets the reader relax into the fact that these murders do not evoke the greatest sense of mourning. That, though murder and mutiliation is wrong, these particular killings may not require grieving. It is Everett’s message that there are deaths more urgently in need of consideration. That if there is time at all to lament over the deaths of profoundly bigoted people, there is certainly time to properly mourn the countless Black Americans that suffer the same horrific fate.

Everett’s novel falls into the likes of classics that shape our understanding of the human existence. Posing a question that seems to have only one right answer, like can murder be justified, and planting the suggestion that there may be more ways to look at it is a difficult and commendable feat to take on. It lends to larger questioning of why humans moralize issues with such nuance, so much so that it should be far more difficult to generalize about. Turning to face the gray areas of life reveals more about humanity than any examination of black and white topics, especially when the lines are blurred within seemingly unambiguous issues. Everett bringing a question that our established morality automatically rejects into the forefront of our minds is a fascinating and necessary dissection of the implicit manner in which humans approach certain topics. Or, in other words, how for most people, Everett’s novel will be the reason behind the first time that they deconstruct their understanding of murder. That if we are to live in a world where there is no justice for innumerable senseless murders, why is there be an expectation to abide by a code of law that only targets or absolves certain individuals depending on the color of their skin? I mean not to defend murder in any regard or circumstance, but The Trees proposes an interesting grounds to ponder the biased nature of our justice system and in the structure of human morality. 

Final Reflective Essay

I would consider my semester story in this class different then what I had expected. In Percival Everett’s The Trees: A Novel, he tells the gruesome story taking place in Money, Mississippi. I think something that I always find frustration with is what I want the purpose of this novel to be, what the author intended, and the inexorable result of how people perceived his book after it was published. I think to myself  “these stories aren’t forgotten”

Acknowledgement has been a repeated term in class discussion. I find that every time the term is brought up in class, a new definition takes a grasp on the word. In Percival Everette’s The Trees: A Novel, set in present day Money, Mississippi, the the same site of the death of Emmet Till, there is a mysterious string of murders of the families related to Till’s murderers, Roy Bryant and J.W. “Junior” Milam. At each crime site there is a mangled body of a Black man bearing a great resemblance to Till that constantly disappears under the police watch. A common remark I heard many times in class was “I keep forgetting this is set in the present day”, constantly reminding us that this is the world we live in and not just words on a paper or people on a screen. 

Everette portrays Money, Mississippi as an antiquated community following, what we could call today, a stereotypical American South. This kind of South that I had only learned about in the classroom and read in books. It’s not that I don’t believe the depictions of how this society functions, but more along the lines of questioning if time is damaging rather than healing the issue of violent racism in the United States. 

Since the first day of class, the epigraph by Audre Lorde titled IV has found a way to resonate with most, if not all, of the works we have read this semester. Though a short piece, it left me truly “thinkING” and has guided me through the course. The first line “I cannot recall the words of my first poem” has a deeper meaning when relating to our class and how I found myself feeling throughout. I don’t remember a time where racism and violent hate crimes weren’t uncommon. In fact, as I get older I find myself reminded when I receive news notifications such as, reading “18 year-old white male has been charged with first degree murder in a Buffalo mass shooting offcials say was ‘racially motivated’”. The recent mass shooting less than 2 hours from Geneseo feels different than hearing about a mass shooting in a different state. Again, its not that I’m disregarding that mass shooting are a major problem in the U.S. but when its so close to home, I still find myself shocked every time. Shocked that this is still an issue after the mass shooting in Atlanta. Shocked that this is still an issue in a country that minorities populate more than white people. The pattern of these mass shootings follow a consistent pattern similar in structure like the string of mysterious murders in Money, Mississippi.  White and “not white”. Gunmen have opened fire on summer camps and festivalgoers, as well as worshippers in synagogues, mosques, temples, and Bible studies. Charleston, El Paso, Poway, Pittsburgh, Oak Creek, and Christchurch, New Zealand are all locations we’ve heard of. We also know the shooters’ identities, though I won’t mention them here since adding to their prominence would worsen the situation of giving attention to what matters more.

“but I remember a promise/ I made my pen/ never to leave it/ lying/ in somebody else’s blood.”. I think one of the lessons in class that stuck with me the most is the day where we looked up the names on the list of black people who have died of hate crime dating back to over 100 years ago. There were also many without names such as “unknown black man” or “16 adult men” but the beauty of this part of the book is that when Dammon Thruff is writing down these names in his yellow pad he says “When I’m done, I’m going to erase every name, set them free”. He does this again at the end of the book but its different this time (and I think this is my “ah ha!” moment in class). Dammon is now typing names instead of writing them, the ink is permanent and so are the names Mama Z and Hind ask “shall I stop him?” but they never stop him not to sat they did or didn’t. I think this is how the world reacts to racially motivated issues and crimes. 

“Should we stop him?” they catch the guy, lock him up, call it justice and things just seem to end there. Although we may believe that these are assaults on specific victim groups—and they are attacks on Black, Jewish, Islamic, Sikh, Latino, and immigrant populations—the identities have all been part of the same movement. A white-power activist was the offender in each case. Several of the attackers detailed their intentions in manifestos that revealed a unified political worldview. They have been backed by a vast social movement in the United States that our lawmakers have failed to denounce, our courts have failed to convict, and our society has not stopped.

However, all of this violence is merely half of the immediate threat we face. The other part of white nationalism is in our government buildings and on our television screens, feigning ignorance of its most violent manifestations. Consider the following scenario for the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021: Although white-power and militant-right activists made up a small percentage of the crowd, they were the most well-organized, with tactical gear and advanced preparation. They were in charge of intergroup communication and combat preparedness.

Nothing is ever going to be changed because we are needing to be constantly reminded that there is an issue. So maybe the challenge isn’t a lack of acknowledgement but perhaps a lack of resources, and thus, motivation to put change into action. Throughout this semester I’ve come across many different essays and pieces and one that words this cycle perfectly “That philistinism regards human life, not as an agreeable adventure, but as a mere trial of rectitude” – The Sahara of the Bozart 

Looking Back and Thinking Ahead: My Semester’s Story

		surely i am able to write poems
		celebrating grass and how the blue
		in the sky can flow green or red
		and the waters lean against the
		chesapeake shore like a familiar
		poems about nature and landscape
		surely		but whenever I begin 
		“the trees wave their knotted branches 
		and…” 		why
		is there under that poem always
		an other poem?
                                             - Lucille Clifton

When I first read this prompt, I began by looking back on the course epigraphs and discovered something I hadn’t thought of before. After reading Percival Everett’s The Trees, I automatically connected to the Audre Lorde’s poem about promising her pen that she wouldn’t leave it sitting in someone else’s blood. This connection was an obvious one because of the aspect of blood and hurting other people, but then I started thinking more about the novel’s structure and how the plot and characterization layers slowly pull away to reveal more of the story. All of this being said, I have decided to take an alternate route to this paper than I was originally planning after thinkING deeper about the novel and the true meaning of the course epigraphs. I was able to make strong connections between the novel and Lucille Clifton’s poem and see it through a new lens through The Trees.

            Clifton’s poem really stood out to me after reading The Trees for a multitude of different reasons. The poem starts out with a definitive, slightly defensive tone as if someone was questioning her ability to write poetry, but the tone switches throughout until the narrator realizes that there are more components to poetry than meets the eye. This is very powerful when seen through Percival Everett’s novel, especially while what seems to be the same event is happening all over the country. White people are being delivered a death sentence for crimes the rest of the world was blind to (whether unintentional or intentional), and it causes the truth to finally emerge after many years of hiding in the shadows. Throughout the novel, higher level detectives from varying places are brought to Mississippi to try their hand at solving this string of brutal murders that continue happening all across the state. Sheriff Jetty of Money, Mississippi and his team are joined early on by Supervisory Special Agents Ed and Jim of the MBI in Hattiesburg. The team later expands to include FBI Agent Herberta Hind along with other officers representing surrounding counties that are mentioned a the end of the novel. All of these individuals come into the case with preconceived biases based on their background and this allows them to see the details of the case differently from each other. Lucille Clifton’s poem connects to this idea of each person can be given a poem or a case file of sorts and form their own opinions and notions based on what they see. Lucille also mentions “familiar poems about nature and landscape” which can be tied to the different perspectives that can be present in any given situation (Clifton lines 5-6).

            On the basis of characterization throughout the novel, Special Agents Ed and Jim meet Gertrude, a more complex character than readers might initially think. She works as a waitress at The Dinah, and on her uniform she wears a name tag that reads: Dixie. Upon meeting, Ed and Jim call Gertrude the name on her name tag and she corrects them by saying that her real name is Gertrude because “Dixies get better tips than Gertrudes” (Everett 39). At the end of the novel when Jim is informally interrogating Gertrude, he concludes that her real name isn’t Dixie or even Gertrude Penstock, but Gertrude Harvey and that she isn’t really Mama Z’s great-granddaughter as they aren’t even blood relatives (Everett 291). This concept of Gertrude’s real name circles back to the concept of perspective and how many layers they can be to one seemingly simple aspect. Gertrude is a character with many layers, constantly evolving under the readers’ nose, but still it shocks us in the end that she isn’t the person that we were told she was in the beginning. Lucille Clifton’s poem concludes with the line, “why / is there under that poem always / an other poem?” (Clifton lines 9-11). There is always more to something or someone than what we observe at face value. We can observe and question many different aspects of this thing, but in reality it is very likely that we will never truly know it. This mindset pertains to more than just Gertrude’s character in The Trees, looking more broadly at the conflict this novel seeks to explain.

            The whole of Everett’s novel has readers immersed in a very real conflict that we see in our societies today. The novel is set in the midst of a developing race war between Whites and what they see as minority groups of Asian and Black people among many others. Mama Z has a collection of files of lynchings that happened all over the world, one of the first being the death of her father. In an effort to avenge the deaths of this multitude of people that died at the hands of White people that assumed they were the ones to blame when terrible things happened to their people, Mama Z, Gertrude and others murdered three men in the town of Money, Mississippi not realizing that they would start a trend across the state. Junior Junior, Wheat Bryant and Carolyn Bryant (Granny C) were all killed because they were either directly or indirectly (through lineage) responsible for the false accusations against Emmett Till who was kidnapped from his home and lynched in August 1955. The reason that was used to excuse this lynching was that Emmett allegedly flirted or whistled at Carolyn Bryant at the store, which violated the unwritten code of behavior for a black male interacting with a white female in the Jim Crow era in the South. This accusation led to Emmett Till’s death and consequently the death of these characters toward the beginning of Everett’s novel which was written based on true events. On page 161 of the novel, Everett writes notes on the discovery of Julius Lynch’s body (Mama Z’s biological father) that say “The body of Julius Lynch was claimed by his brother, John Lynch. The body was picked up by the Pierce Funeral Parlor. No one was interviewed. No suspects were identified. No one was arrested. No one was charged. No one cared” (Everett 161). There are so many perspectives to these cases and the background that follows them, reminding us that what we observe or hear and believe to be the truth is not necessarily everyone’s truth, but is something we will never understand in its entirety.

            The phrases that Everett uses in the final pages of his novel are very intense and hold more mean as readers acknowledge their reading journey is coming to a close. I wanted to take the time to highlight some of these quotes that really resonate with me even after finishing the novel in its entirety, connecting them back to the poem by Lucille Clifton found among out course epigraphs. When describing the group of Black people that killed her father, Laurel Winslow tells reporters, “They wasn’t human” (Everett 260). When the governor of South Carolina is discussing the deaths of six White males that morning he says, “…all of these killers are Black men who have no regard for human life…we are encouraging the good White people of South Carolina to be wary of any Black individuals, especially those unknown to them” immediately following the statement, “We understand, all of us, that the actions of a few members are not and should not be an indictment of an entire group” (Everett 261). All of these phrases quoted above are terrifyingly relevant to event that have occurred both in history and present day.

These statements made by government officials, local and federal, are at the heart of this issue and in turn infects the mindset of the common people, making it more difficult to stop the spread of hate and negativity. Disregarding people as human beings just because of a difference in skin color or appearance after having just said that one person’s wrongdoings should not affect someone’s outlook on the remainder of that group is appalling. Reading this novel and connecting it to my reading of Lucille Clifton’s poem has left me sad for the state of the world we are inhabitants of, but hopeful that someday we can all come together and realize just how wrong we were about others who think differently, believe differently, look differently, and act differently than we do. I hope that I can be part of the change that gets us to a better, more accepting and understanding place.

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My Semester’s Story

surely i am able to write poems 

celebrating grass and how the blue

in the sky can flow green or red

and the waters lean against the

chesapeake shore like a familiar

poems about nature and landscape

surely        but whenever I begin

“the trees wave their knotted branches 

and…”      why

is there under that poem always

an other poem? 

–Lucille Clifton

The first week of the semester I did not see much purpose in this epigraph by Lucille Clifton or understand how it would carry itself through the entirety of our course, but as the semester is coming to a close, I am able to not only realize its significance but also how much of our reading and course concepts it can be connected to. Throughout the semester we touched on several course concepts that have not only deepened my understanding of African Literature, but also how these concepts can be connected to my practical life as well. This includes concepts such as recursion, sustainability, and good and bad faith. Admittedly, I struggled at first with how these concepts could possibly be related and why I needed to know them, but after wrapping up our course with The Trees by Percival Everett, it made me realize how these concepts can be intertwined and opened up my eyes to the true effect of failed sustainability, recursion, and administering bad faith.  

We defined sustainability in our collaborative essay as, “meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Although sustainability is commonly misunderstood as being strictly environmental, the pillar of sustainability we see in The Trees is social sustainability, which is defined by the website “Toward Sustainability” as, “maintaining and improving social quality with concepts such as cohesion, reciprocity and honesty and the importance of relationships amongst people. It can be encouraged and supported by laws, information and shared ideas of equality and rights.” In other words, the social pillar focuses largely on the idea of equality, something that most of society is lacking in Everett’s novel. Although Everett does not specifically mention the importance of social sustainability, he illustrates the significance of it by tackling a series of murders and makes it clear that the actions occurring both before and after 1913 have compromised the ability of future generations to live peacefully and equally in the country. 

Tracing back as far as 1913, where Mama Z began to keep track of lynchings, Everett illustrates the poor treatment that Black and Asian people received, and more specifically the violence that was inflicted on them. For the span of a hundred and five years that the novel focuses on, the treatment of minorities continued through the use of derogatory terms and Ku Klux Klan meetings still being held in Money, “We go back to the old, tried-and-true ways of our KKK forebears, the sacred ways, the ways of fury, fire, and the rope” (Everett, 97). Allowing for the continuation of poor treatment of both Black and Asian people to go unnoticed resulted in built up anger and a lack of justice for victims and their families, resulting in failed social sustainability and causing a spread of similarly described murders to take place across the United States. Due to a lack of cohesion, reciprocity, equality, and honesty, which have been defined as critical aspects of maintaining a social pillar, Gertrude, Mama Z, and eventually many others, find themselves forced to go to extreme measures to brings our attention to the large number of lynchings that was ignored by society. 

As we get deeper into the novel, it gets revealed that all of the victims from Money Mississippi have something in common; they come from families that were connected to lynchings in the past: “I’ll tell you what, though: if spirits are out for revenge, there’s going to be a lot more killing around here. Those spirits are going to have a field day around here. Every white person in this country, if they didn’t lynch somebody themselves, the somebody in their family tree did” (Everett, 102). This is the point in the novel where Everett allows readers to connect the motivation of the murders to past lynchings, but before we can discover who is behind these murders, the string of murders spreads outward and past the borders of Money Mississippi, illustrating an even larger problem at hand, “There weren’t enough troops. Colfax, Louisiana. Omaha, Nebraska. Tulsa, Oklahoma. Chicago, Illinois. Thirty-five White casualties. Panic in the streets. Rosewood, Florida. A mob of dead-eyed Black men left behind six dead Whites” (Everett, 294). By making the murders take place on a mass scale, Everett is illustrating a larger problem and not just one that we originally believed to only be taking place in a small town in Mississippi. 

While reading The Trees, I sat in shock, left wondering what single character or group of characters could be behind so many murders, assuming that each victim had to have some relation to the Bryants or Milams. It wasn’t until Everett described mobs of Black and Asian individuals that I realized the problem wasn’t small, nor was the problem really the people being murdered at all. This is where I was able to relate back to our course concept of recursion, which we defined as “a feedback loop,” or in other words, “defining a problem in terms of itself.” It wasn’t until I uncovered the plot of Everett’s novel that I truly understood the meaning of recursion, and how a problem can be defined “in terms of itself.” The real problem in the novel wasn’t the murders occurring, but instead the failed social sustainability on a larger scale, which in turn resulted in the murders. Going back to our course epigraph by Lucille Clifton, her last line, “but whenever I begin “the trees wave their knotted branches and…” why is there under that poem always an other poem?” finally began to click for me, realizing that she was showing the idea of recursion as well. As Clifton is beginning to write, “the trees wave their knotted branches and…”, she gets stopped abruptly, unable to continue without addressing the “other poem” underneath. The same holds true for Jim and Ed, who cannot possibly discover the answer behind the horrifying murders without stopping to identify the lynching victims of the past. Clifton’s last line is forcing us to notice that there are always underlying causes of everything, the same way Everett is forcing us to notice the inequality and injustice that resulted in the murders.

We saw something similar occur in Ellison’s Invisible Man, which helped to deepen my understanding of the effect failed social sustainability has. Although the result of not maintaining all three pillars was on a much smaller scale, Ellison illustrates the same concept as Everett does by also showing recursion through unfair and poor treatment of Black workers. The constant tension between Mr. Kimbro, Mr. Brockway, and the company’s union creates a feud that leads to a complete breakdown of the social pillar and eventually a literal explosion of a tank in the basement. The poor treatment of Black workers is clearly displayed through the language they use to describe them, “…you old-fashioned, slavery-time, mammy-made, handkerchief-headed bastard…” (Ellison, 26). It is clear here that the characters in Invisible Man are administering bad faith through their actions and even words towards other members working for the company, which doesn’t reflect the overall goal the institution is trying to achieve, and therefore, means their company was bound to fail, the same way the country was in The Trees. The real problem, and the main plot of the story wasn’t about the paint being sold, but instead the underlying problem of social inequality and unfair treatment, creating a feedback loop that parallels Everett’s. 

Once the underlying cause of the murders are revealed, as well as the fact that Gertrude and Mama Z are behind the murders of Wheat Bryant, Junior Junior Milam, and the other Milam in Chicago, it leaves Jim and Ed battling with the idea of good and bad faith. With failed social sustainability being caused by bad faith actions, it leaves the question of whether the response it created was done out of good or bad faith. Were Gertrude and Mama Z administering good faith through their actions? Did the fact that they were hoping to bring some justice to people who were lynched mean their actions were justified? Gertrude states, “Everybody talks about genocides around the world, but when the killing is slow and spread over a hundred years, no one notices” (Everett, 291). This leads us to another question, if those who lynched several men and women in bad faith, went unpunished, is it okay that Gertrude and Mama Z, possibly acting in good faith, go unpunished? This is a question that Everett leaves us to battle with ourselves as well and makes us wonder whether or not their response should be seen as acceptable. Although these questions are left unanswered, it’s important to go back to our very first day of class and slow down to consider the same for our own decisions and actions and ask ourselves similar questions in order to ensure we are acting out of good faith. 

At the beginning of the semester if you asked me to define sustainability, recursion, or good faith, I would not know how to respond, other than will a google search like our very first day of class; however, looking back at the progress made, I can now not only define these concepts, but also identify them, expand on them, and discuss the significance of them. I have come to realize that they’re not only important when it comes to understanding African American literature, but also when it comes to implementing them in my practical life. Social sustainability, for example, is key to success in so many aspects of life. Unfair treatment of any person would not only be administering bad faith but would also impact their life in a way that I am unable to truly understand. When looking at how my actions can affect others it’s also important to stop and consider the question of good and bad faith that Everett left us with in his novel. Having anything other than sincere intentions when interacting and maintaining relationships with others, would result in me failing to uphold the social pillar. Now although these ideas and statements may seem obvious, unfortunately I have come to realize that they aren’t to some. Although Everett’s novel is fiction, the horrifying language and actions toward Black and Asian men and women aren’t as fictional as I hoped they would be. Throughout this course and my reading of The Trees, I began to notice the recursion that is taking place in our own society today as well: the exact problem Everett illustrated. Living in a world where people are stereotyped, threatened, killed, and enslaved because of their race, with no justice and little outrage, how is it acceptable to ignore a problem this large? How is it that we can set future generations up for failure and then ask them to move on? These are questions that I am unable to answer, but ones that I am now aware of are even questions, and ones that through good faith, effort toward creating social sustainability, and by acknowledging the “other poem,” I hope to change.

The Recurring Theme of Recursion & Institutionalized racism throughout Percival Everett’s Text

This semester has not only taught me the importance of African American literature and its impact but the struggles of African American individuals throughout history. By collaborating heavily with classmates and understanding their points of view on controversial events, I began to see past my own biases and truly recognize the significance of learning about African American experiences through literature. Specifically, one piece of literature that impacted my learning the most regarding African American perseverance was The Trees by Percival Everett, which is a mystery novel that focuses on the gruesome murders within the town of Money, Mississippi. Being enrolled this semester in the course African American Literature has allowed me to dive deeper into the topic of systemic racial injustice and connect it to course concepts such as the concepts of recursion and repetition. This intricate yet important topic was also analyzed frequently throughout Ron Eglash’s text African African Fractals, which allowed me to take my prior knowledge of the concepts of repetition and recursion. and then apply it to Percival Everett’s text by expanding on the repetition of transgressions against African Americans throughout history. 

Furthermore, The Trees is written about a subject that is, unfortunately, all but familiar to American citizens, which is the lynching and horrific murders of African Americans. The title can be acknowledged to have a double meaning, alluding to the actual trees the victims were hung from as well as the family trees that connect both the victims of these crimes and the offenders. The text starts off by telling the story of a young teenager named Emmett Till who is in Chicago for the summertime visiting family. However, when he was accused of flirting and inappropriately touching a white woman named Carolyn Bryant, he mysteriously is found murdered. When two detectives (Jim Davis and Ed Morgan) investigate another murder of a black man, the audience soon discovers that the heinous murder of Emmett Till can be seen as a catalyst for all the horrific murders of African Americans soon to come throughout the text. However, when the FBI gets involved in the murders due to the suspicion of hate crimes, special agent Herbeta Hind joins the mix. The novel, although filled with dark humor and profane language, ultimately ties back to the course epigraph discussed within class written by Toni Morrison, which is “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” Morrison is essentially illustrating how racism has infiltrated our education and we need to insert more diverse pieces of literature within our curriculum so students are more tolerant of other cultures. This quote by Morrison also suggests to the reader that racism is not randomly inherited, but rather it’s taught and institutionalized within our education system. We as students are taught to simply “tolerate” other forms of art that aren’t written by individuals similar to our culture because it’s “socially acceptable.” However, Morrison is demanding that not only students, but scholars as well should start viewing black literature as a serious form of art that has just as much significance as works that have been created by other well-regarded individuals. 

This epigraph relates to Everett’s text because although it would make us more content as a society to believe that the era of racism is far behind us, we are still living in it.  There are still a mass amount of black authors who don’t get the recognition they so rightfully deserve because of the stigma behind black literature being not “a serious, rigorous art form.” Similar to the appalling murders seen within Everett’s The Trees, even though we like to think these behaviors and mindsets are simply a thing of the past, history has a strange way of repeating itself. This concept of repetition or recursion is an extremely significant idea throughout black literature that needs to be thoroughly comprehended before diving into texts. Ron Eglash defines the concept of recursion as an “iterative feedback loop” that in some cases “continues forever” or “bottoms out.” (Eglash, page 17). In addition, Eglash in chapter 8 of African African Fractals also determined that there are multiple types of recursion, all three being extremely different from each other. One type of recursion frequently spoken about throughout the text, which is the weakest of all the different types, is cascade recursion “in which there is a predetermined sequence” that eventually bottoms out (Eglash, page 109). Eglash also mentions the concept of “nesting” which is conceptualized as loops within loops. 

This concept of recursion ultimately ties into the text The Trees by Percival Everett due to the recurring theme of social injustice against the African American community. Racism is like a never-ending loop that has continued to affect individuals for centuries. We would like to tell ourselves that transgressions such as lynchings and unjust murders of African Americans only occurred decades ago when the social climate was too uneducated to realize the true oppressive nature of the world. However, it’s terrifying to think that the crimes described in the text still occur today in the year 2022. Thus demonstrating how the maltreatment of African Americans can easily be compared to loop or recursion. In addition, another concept that should be considered when discussing recursion is the Sankofa bird. Discussed in-depth on the Carter G. Woodson Center website, this symbol is derived from the Akan tribe in Ghana and the translation of the word Sankofa is “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” is based on a mythical bird whose feet remain forward while its head is turned backward, signifying that an individual must always look forward and plan for the future. The Sankofa bird also signifies the importance of learning from the past in order to ensure a prosperous future. Once again, this concept correlates to the overall theme of the text by Percival Everett because readers must take reflect on the unjust and appalling murders of African American individuals within the text, because if we don’t learn from past mistakes made in history these killings with continue to act as a recurring loop. 

Furthermore, one excerpt from the text that effectively demonstrates this recurring loop of injustice is from chapter 72, where Everett wrote “‘unknown male is a name,’ the old woman said. ‘In a way, it’s more of a name than any of the others. A little more than life was taken from them.’” (Everett, pg 215) This powerful statement made by the old man displays to the reader how so many murders throughout history against the African American community have nameless victims. Unlike the other victims, more than their life was taken, but also their identity. Even in today’s world there continues to be an extraordinary number of Jane and John Does (unidentified bodies), whose names just get lost throughout history. However, it’s important to remember that we need to say and acknowledge the names of these victims. Without saying these names aloud, it makes it easier for society to continue to not take accountability for these racial injustices because not identifying a victim with their name makes it easier for their death to get lost in translation. It also makes it easier for society to dehumanize them, and ultimately forget about them. This is why Percival Everett includes pages worth of victims’ names throughout his work, so society can not only mourn the loss of these individuals but also finally take ownership of the ignorance that allowed these killings to continue on throughout history. Without taking ownership, these occurrences will only continue to loop or repeat themselves. 

Another topic considered to be a recursive loop in Everett’s text is the concept of police brutality against African Americans. Everett attempts to demonstrate to his readers that however unjust killings have occurred at the hands of citizens, just as many have occurred due to the ignorance of police officers. Everett portrays this message to his reader in chapter 33 where he writes “‘you should know that I consider police shooting to be lynchings.’” (Everett, page 103) This excerpt from the novel is signifying that systematic racism is often institutionalized and embedded into the laws our society is taught to follow. Everett is telling readers that just because a police officer shoots an individual, does not mean it’s justified killing. These rouge police officers are just as responsible for the unjust murders of African Americans as the individuals who choose to unlawfully lynch them. As a society, we would like to believe that racism within our police system is an issue of past due, however, the unjustifiable killings of African Americans by police officials still continue today, as we have seen in the horrific cases of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, two African American individuals unfairly killed due to police ignorance. Ultimately, what Everett is attempting to relay to readers with The Trees is that if we continue to not stand up and attempt to learn something from these unjust police brutalities, they will continue to occur for many generations to come like a recursive loop.

Therefore, Percival Everett’s The Trees does an extraordinary job of connecting to the various concepts embedded within the course such as the course epigraph derived from Toni Morrison and the concept recursion. With these in mind, it’s imperative for readers of Everett’s novel to not get distracted by the immense amount of satire implemented throughout the text and to keep in mind that these brutal events being described unfortunately do occur in today’s world and will continue to occur if we fail to stop this cyclical pattern of wrongdoings. Failing to use these unjust killings as a learning opportunity for society to recognize its institutionalized racism should ultimately be seen as ignorance, rather than seen as simply a missed opportunity for change. Even though these brutal killings are described within a fictional book, readers should never fail to remember that the pages of names included with the text are the real names of individuals who have fallen victim to our prejudiced justice system, and we must continue to say their names in hopes to one day stop this recursive loop of discriminatory tragedies.

African American Literature: Repetition and Good Faith

English 337: African American Literature was a course I took this semester with Dr. Beth McCoy. While I’ve taken classes on similar subjects before, this course’s journey into concepts and writing old and new strongly impacted how I view this topic. What made this class as useful in expanding my viewpoint was some recurring topics we discussed throughout, such as the ideas of good vs. bad faith, and the concept of recursion. 

On the first day of class, we were introduced to five epigraphs for the course. From the very beginning, one resonated with me as being very potent, especially for me as a writer. It was by Audre Lorde, taken from the fourth stanza of her poem, “To the Poet Who Happens to be Black and the Black Poet Who Happens to be a Woman.” It reads as follows:

“I cannot recall the words of my first poem

but I remember a promise 

I made my pen

never to leave it


in somebody else’s blood” (Lorde).

    I relate this right back to the concept of good and bad faith. As we explained it in the course, good faith is acting and speaking with truthfulness and respecting others to the best of your ability, while bad faith is the inverse of this. What Lorde is saying relates to that as well. To leave one’s pen in blood is to write with bad faith; drawing blood by not realizing the power of your words and that what you write has meaning. Words and writing carry power, and they can provide provide both so much pain and so much relief. The conscious effort to watch where you lie your pen is to constantly try and write in good faith, and is the cause I hoped to apply myself to throughout this semester. 

    I present the concept of good faith as well as Lorde’s poem when I do is because it’s inherently tied in with repetition in Black history. When we first introduced this concept in class, we were shown an excerpt from 1995 sketch comedy Mr. Show, “The Story of Everest.” The aforementioned skit shows a man coming home to his family to tell his story of climbing Mount Everest, but very quickly, his fall into the shelf holding thimbles behind him quickly becomes the focus of his friends and family. This was my introduction to the concept of repetition, and it still holds as a strong metaphor. An event occurs, and people act and react to it differently, because of the previous iterations of the event. At first, the man’s family helped him out. After the third time, they were annoyed. After the seventh, they simply ignored the problem. It was something we discussed in class at the time, but this same concept of repetition carried through to our understanding of Black history. Linking back to good faith, our class saw this when investigating Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography. In class, Dr. Beth McCoy told how in the past, when fugitive slave narratives were being produced, white people in both the north and south doubted enslaved people’s ability to tell the truth in self written narratives. Thus, many were prefaced by white abolitionists, Douglass’s autobiography being no different. The two men who wrote the preface, William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, claimed that Douglass simply told the facts of slavery, and they were the ones who provided interpretation. Considering this as the first iteration, we can see how this impacted the present by inspecting Call and Response, a near 2000 page anthology dedicated to African American Literature containing the work of many Black authors, edited by Patricia Liggins Hill, Bernard W. Bell, Trudier Harris, William J. Harris, R. Baxter Miller, Sondra A. O’Neale, and Horace A. Porter. In regards to Douglass, this shows why good faith and repetition are, or at least should be, linked. The editors of call in response nixed this existing preface, replacing it with an approximately 3 page narrative on his life and impact of his writing. The editors chose to act in good faith, and “right the wrongs of history,” so to speak, and its an example of what the precedent should be in these repetitive situations. Each new event, each new wrongdoing, is treated differently because of the context of the previous, and nothing provides a better example of this than the last book we read this semester: The Trees. 

    Percival Everett’s The Trees is a thriller mystery novel which covers the story of the Mississippi police departments after a string of similar killings grow progressively more common and expand beyond the small town of Money, Mississippi. The nature of the killings is repetitive. One or more white men killed, and their testicles found in the hands of a previously dead Black corpse. Additionally, the people targeted all have a link with racism. Most are racist themselves, and many have roots with racist ancestors as well. With each killing, the situation gets more and more tense, and new details unravel, eventually leading to mobs of disheveled Black men killing white racists in the streets, a murder in the white house, and a long, ever unfurling list of victims. At first, although gruesome, detectives aren’t terribly alarmed. One character, Sheriff Red Jetty, states, “I don’t give a shit about the blood. It’s the goddamn paperwork,” (Everett, 3). The police weren’t alarmed at the first killing; it was just another day on the job. There was little precaution, it was simply a gruesome, one off crime. It was only after the disappearance of the Black body and its reappearance at a different crime scene that special detectives were called in. Later, after the FBI gets involved and the killings spread outside of Mississippi, the agents on the case show they’ve become almost hopeless to an extent. Rather than providing possibly helpful context, the FBI agent, Herberta Hind, states “…Detective Ho, know that body will resurface. You will see your body again,” (Everett 68). Because of the already existing killings, not only were detectives aware of what would happen next, but the attitude surrounding the killings changed as well. In Everett’s writing, he explains this concept of repetition through the thoughts of Damon Thruff, an academic brought in by the people who are eventually revealed to be behind the initial killings. Everett writes, “They were like zebras, he thought- not one had stripes just like any other, but who could tell one zebra from another?” (Everett, 60). These thoughts, however, aren’t about the murders; they’re about lynchings.

    It would be unfair to discuss the murders in The Trees without discussing the historical context around it, as well as the initial epigraph from Lorde. At several points, Everett brings up the lynchings of the past; one of the characters in the novel, referred to as Granny C, is the woman who accused Emmett Till. Simply using this concept for something like shock value would be bad faith; instead of offering the subject the respect it deserves, using it just to attract to an unrelated novel would be in bad taste. Everett doesn’t do this, however. Moving back to Thruff’s idea of zebra stripes, Everett describes the killings as repetitive and hard to distinguish not to dismiss them. Rather, the description of them blending together is meant to be distressing. The point he is making here is that their similarity and number is exactly the issue with them. Just beyond that quote, Everett describes that this repetition is causing the victims to morph into one singular “being” of sorts, their distinct names and cases forgotten. Everett’s remedy to this is the several page list of names written by Thruff in the middle of the book (Everett, 64). In class, we went through and googled several of the names and read their cases. All of the names, and their attached cases, were real. This shows how much research Everett put in, as well as the level of care and attention to the issue. By taking his proper precautions and giving respect to those who have passed, providing powerful historical background and writing in a way that honors those victims, Everett has made this same promise as Lorde. He’s not letting his pen lie in blood, he’s writing in good faith by showing his respect towards the topic.

    In my writing and understanding for this course, I had kept both the idea of recursion and good or bad faith in mind. In plotting out what I was going to say for this reflection initially, I considered simply discussing the epigraph to discuss good faith, and Everett’s novel to talk about recursion. Only in writing this did I see their link, and why we should be so concerned about the idea of recursion, and why it requires good faith actions. Preventing something bad that’s already happened from happening again, or at the very least atoning for the previous iterations, is acting in good faith. The fact that in African American history, we see a pattern of racism and violence towards Black people shows that this good faith is still not held by much of the white population. My journey through this course was defined by these concepts, the ideas of repetition and good faith, and I feel The Trees, a very strong novel in its own right, served to help unpack these concepts and summarize what I had learned. The killings in Everett’s novel wouldn’t have been prevented if the detectives acted in their best faith. Rather, its because of the events of the past, and the victim’s perpetuation of the cycle that causes these killings. Thus, its so very important to leave one’s pen not lying in blood, as Lorde says, because pens and worse have drawn enough already.